Today’s newest retail customers have come of age lacking the sense of limitations in commerce that their elders have long been forced to accept. They don’t see why commerce needs to take place on one channel to the exclusion of another. They will be sure to Yelp your business a new one if you don’t honor your online pricing in your store (or vice versa), or if you refuse to honor a gift card in your store that someone sent the customer by email.
What they want is what’s called—jargon alert—omnichannel. To put it simply, omnichannel is the future of just about everything that involves extracting money from a customer in a way that they actually enjoy having it extracted.
So what does–should–omnichannel look like? Let’s take a peek.
Meghan Millennial’s Omnichannel Shopping Spree
On a late, bright Thursday morning, Meghan Millennial is walking down a Washington, DC, sidewalk when her phone buzzes, inviting her into an adjacent store for a cupcake in a flavor she’s enjoyed there before. Having just eaten brunch (one of the most important meals of the day), she keeps walking, but mentally files the text for later.
Half a block later, a Patagonia store catches her eye and she steps in. As she enters the foyer, her phone buzzes again with a coupon for 20% off for the next two hours on dresses. Meghan likes the offer and works with a salesperson to find the right dress. However, the store doesn’t have it in her size. No biggie: The salesperson locates it in another store and offers to drop-ship it to Meghan’s house.
But wait! Meghan now wants two of the dresses, and Patagonia’s other location only has one. The salesperson locates one dress in that store and one in a store in Ohio, coordinates the drop-shipping for both, and gives her the BOGO (buy one, get one) discount she deserves (better, after all, than the 20% off that tempted her initially), even though both dresses come from different stores, and neither from the store in which she’s standing.
That afternoon, back at home, Meghan finds that three shoeboxes from Macy’s have arrived. Two of the pairs fit her perfectly; the third is too tight. Needing that third style for the weekend, yet dreading the time it’ll take to hunt for the item in person, Meghan opens Macy’s mobile website on her phone before setting out. She finds the shoes in a better-fitting size and orders them for in-store pickup the next morning, which suits her schedule better than waiting at home.
The pickup is ready when she comes in, and with the proximity functionality on her phone, the store’s employees are able to recognize her arrival, stop folding clothes and other low-value tasks, and hurry to meet Meghan at the front door—handy, since in grand DC tradition, she’s double-parked—where they hand her the package and accept her exchange, wishing her well with an e-coupon to return.
All of the channel-melding that our hypothetical Meghan has just enjoyed can currently be accomplished in retail. It isn’t easy for a business to pull off, but customers want and are starting to expect exactly this. Furthermore, customers have little to no understanding of or sympathy for your difficulties in pulling off omnichannel retailing, even though these difficulties are assuredly significant.
Your inventory systems and databases need to be connected. Your return procedures and order histories need to be synchronized. While none of this is easy to accomplish, it’s easier now than it used to be. Companies like Micros, recently acquired by Oracle, specialize in building systems and technology that allow this coordination: When a customer returns a dress via any channel (ships it back, drops it off in-store, etc.) the merchant’s general ledger is adjusted, order history is appended and inventory is updated. So a phone call or Web interaction, even moments after an in-store return, for example, can be based on up-to-the-minute information.
New technology also offers merchants the opportunity to expand inventory beyond what’s in front of the customer: Small retailers can use systems such as the Lightspeed solution, while larger retailers (such as Macy’s) can use the more elaborate systems that Micros and others offer that provide a “show-and-tell” feature with enhanced-resolution photos from multiple angles. This feature allows a customer, still interacting with a salesperson in-store, to examine in detail items that aren’t found on the showroom floor. This, in effect, expands the store’s inventory without requiring the store to commit valuable real estate. And it puts to bed the perennial frustration customers have after schlepping across town to a store only to learn that the desired item is unavailable in the right size/color/fabric.
When this experience becomes truly seamless, truly centered on the customer and her perspective, you’ve achieved true omnichannel. And the benefit to you is more than the pleasant experience you’ll be providing your customers, although that’s a big part of it. This approach makes sales seamless and almost invisible to boot, and by removing barriers to buying you will likely spur customers to purchase more. When you lower the barrier to returning items, perhaps a few more items get returned, but again, you increase present and future sales due to greater customer comfort with the returns process. When you lower the barrier to reaching your company through any possible channel, you’ll hear from the customer more—and more often with an open pocketbook.